The sinking of HMS Hermes, the First Ship Designed as an Aircraft Carrier

The sinking of HMS Hermes, the First Ship Designed as an Aircraft Carrier

By William Cobb
May 7 2022
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‘At this stage Hermes had a very heavy list to port and it was obvious that she was about to sink. As the sea was now only feet below our gun deck I gave the order “over the side lads, every man for himself, good luck to you all,”’ Sam Curtis, Royal Navy.

The life of HMS Hermes, or as we shall call her, Hermes 21, was still a life full of adventure. Designed in the aftermath of the Great War, with the benefit of the Royal Navy’s experience with carrier operations during that conflict, the Hermes was designed from the keel up to be an aircraft carrier. As such she had an Island Superstructure, offset to the side, something which allowed her to have a bridge like a traditional warship without her superstructure getting in the way or causing wind interference.

Hermes pioneered carrier operations in the Royal Navy along her step sister, the converted Battleship HMS Eagle. Prewar, the Royal Navy both benefited and was hindered by pioneering Carrier operations. They had HMS Argus, whose flatiron like appearance influenced the design of America’s first carrier USS Langley. However, the British also had HMS Furious, which had been built as a Battle Cruiser for Lord Fisher’s Baltic Project and was converted into a carrier by building a flight deck forward. She could launch aircraft but recovery was a dicey affair, with only one pilot capable of doing so, Sqd. Leader Dunning, who managed to sideslip aboard but died trying to repeat that feat.

Furious had her after deck cleared as well, and retained her bridge and superstructure amidships, but this caused so many air currents that aircraft were rarely able to land on her flight deck aft. Still, Furious achieved the unique distinction of being the first Aircraft Carrier to launch aircraft into combat, sending her flight of Sopwith Camels on a special mission against German Zeppelin sheds in Tondern, Germany in mid 1918.

The sinking of HMS Hermes, the First Ship Designed as an Aircraft Carrier
Sopwith Camels ranged forward on Furious in preparation for the Tondern Raid, which launched those Camels against Zeppelin Sheds and achieved some degree of success. This mission marked the first time an Aircraft Carrier had used its aircraft against a land target, thus pioneering the concept of Aircraft Carriers projecting power onto land.

Hermes was designed with the benefit of this hard earned experience, and her island superstructure was similarly adapted on HMS Eagle. Unlike pre flush flight deck Furious, Hermes was designed to Launch AND recover aircraft. An experimental Carrier HMS Argus was constructed with a complete flush deck, and ironically Furious was fitted with a minimal island as well when razeed into a true Carrier. Still, Hermes paved the way for carrier designs ever since. For the two decades in the 1920s and 30s, she alternated with Eagle on the China Station, while Furious’s half sisters Courageous and Glorious did the same in the Med. Hermes pioneered a unique mission during her time in the China Station, Aircraft Carrier Anti Piracy Operations.

The specter of Silver Winged aircraft of the British Empire hunting down Chinese pirates during the roaring 20s has enough of a hook to send storytellers scrambling to write screenplays. Yet Hermes actually performed this mission while on the China Station, and later helped maintain British interests while Imperial Japan began expanding the scope of their own interests there. This erupted into a series of incidents flaring up into the Manchuria Incident of 1931 and later the Shanghai Incident of 1937, which marked the beginning of Japan’s war of conquest in China.

As war clouds loomed in Europe, Hermes was recalled home, but still served a useful role as a kind of auxiliary carrier. Relatively small at only 600 ft, about 25 percent smaller than most contemporary WW2 carriers, Hermes was a relatively lightweight cruiser carrier, displacing only 10,000 tons at “Standard” displacement and around 13,000 at full. This gave her only a third of the displacement of the Giant American Lexingtons and Japanese Akagi/Kaga cousin carriers. Her “stepsister” Eagle, shared no design relation, Eagle was a converted Chilean Battleship which had been taken over at the start of WW1 and kept by the Royal Navy after being converted to a carrier during the War. Hermes was built as another sort of experiment, a ship which would carry a similarly sized air group without a battleship’s 20,000 plus tons of displacement.

Her designers succeeded, though Hermes was rather small by the end of her career. She served well as an auxiliary carrier a la Ryujo, but not so much as a first line battle carrier. Hermes was a fine presence ship and a useful counterinsurgency vessel, both over China Prewar and against Iraqi rebels in 1941. While roaming round the backwaters of the world looking for Pirates or later Surface Raiders, she had her uses, but when facing the World’s most powerful carrier task force at the time, she was clearly out of her element.

The sinking of HMS Hermes, the First Ship Designed as an Aircraft Carrier
The British carrier HMS Hermes (95) pictured underway off Yantai (known in the West as “Chefoo” then), China.

After the near miss between Formidable and Indomitable vs the Kido Butai on 5 April, 1942, Hermes’s Days were numbered. Rear Admiral Yamaguchi Tamon’s Dragons of CarDiv 2 had hunted down and sunk Cornwall and Dorsetshire, but those two cruisers frantic maneuvering soaked up their attacks and allowed the British carriers time to escape. Meanwhile, Hermes had lost a significant portion of her Torpedo Bomber compliment on Ceylon and was operating with a minimal air group to begin with. She was sent to the opposite side of the island to Trincomalee in the wake of the attack on Columbo to prepare to serve in the upcoming Royal Navy invasion of Vichy French Madagascar, a continuation of the proud British Military tradition to wage war against the French for at least once per century dating back to the Hundred Years War.

When the Kido Butai returned to strike the Royal Navy Base at Trincomalee, the Hermes sortied from the Harbour in company with HMAS Vampire, a veteran of the what was nicknamed the “scrap iron” Flotilla off North Africa. Sadly, an old carrier and scrap iron escort were no match for the such a force and when found the end was all but inevitable.

According to the survivor’s report by Survivor Sam Curtis appeared on BBC;

‘We waited and waited but no aircraft put in an appearance, only Japanese. At 10.30am we had the report, “enemy aircraft in sight” immediately our A.A. opened up, Hermes was a sitting duck, our anti aircraft defence was inadequate against the number of dive bombers that attacked us, there were 85 of them. Zero dive bombers each carrying a 250lb bomb that was delay fused, they went through our flight deck (we had no armour plating) exploding below decks.

‘The planes dived out of the sun and apart from a few near misses every bomb was on target, they went through our flight deck like sticking your finger through tissue paper causing absolute destruction below decks. One of the first casualties was our forward lift, it received a direct hit, was blown 10ft in the air to land upside down on the flight deck eventually sliding into the sea, all personnel in that area were instantly killed.

The sinking of HMS Hermes, the First Ship Designed as an Aircraft Carrier
Hermes in port, identified as either Honolulu or Manila, 1924.

‘Wave after wave of these Zeros came at us. Our Captain was doing his best to dodge the bombs by using the speed of the ship. We were moving flat out at about 20-25 knots shuddering from stem to stern, not only from the speed, but from the continual pounding we were getting from those little “Sons of Nippon” up in the air. Where oh where was our fighter cover, we never did get any. Up until then we had a commentary of what was happening up top.

‘The AA guns crews did a magnificent job and to assist them because the planes at the end of their dive flew along the flight deck to drop their bombs and because the guns could not be fired at that low angle, all the 5.5.`s, mine included had orders to elevate to the maximum so that as the ship slewed from side to side to fire at will hoping that the shrapnel from the shells would cause some damage to the never ending stream of bombers that were hurtling down out of the sun to tear the guts out of my ship that had been my home for the past 3 years.

‘Suddenly there was an almighty explosion that seemed to lift us out of the water, the after magazine had gone up, then another, this time above us on the starboard side, from that moment onwards we had no further communication with the bridge which had received a direct hit, as a result of that our Captain and all bridge personnel were killed.

‘Only about fifteen minutes had passed since the start of the action and the ship was already listing to port, fires were raging in the hanger, she was on fire from stem to stern, just aft of my gun position was the galley, that received a direct hit also, minutes later we had a near miss alongside our gun, talk about a tidal wave coming aboard, our crew were flung yards, tossed like corks on a pond. Picking myself up and finding no bones broken, I called out to each number of our crew and got an answer from all of them (no-one washed overboard), we were lucky; our gun was the only one that did not get hit.

‘At this stage Hermes had a very heavy list to port and it was obvious that she was about to sink. As the sea was now only feet below our gun deck I gave the order “over the side lads, every man for himself, good luck to you all”.

The sinking of HMS Hermes, the First Ship Designed as an Aircraft Carrier
The end of HMS Hermes, April 9, 1942.

‘Abandon ship had previously been given by word of mouth, the lads went over the side and I followed, hitting the water at 11.00 hours, this is the time my wristwatch stopped (I didn’t have a waterproof one).

‘As she was sinking the Japs were still dropping bombs on her and machine gunning the lads in the water. In the water I swam away from the ship as fast as I could, the ship still had way on and I wanted to get clear of the screws and also because bombs were still exploding close to the ship, the force of the explosions would rupture your stomach, quite a few of the lads were lost in this way after surviving Dante’s Inferno aboard, so it was head down and away.’

Though Curtis misidentifies the Aichi D3A dive bombers as Zero Bombers, his report clearly shows why the Hermes was sunk so quickly. No ship on earth could outmaneuver a force of 85 dive Bombers launched from the most powerful carrier strike force on earth. Because Hermes didn’t have her compliment of aircraft this was not a true Carrier vs Carrier battle, but it did mark the first time an Aircraft Carrier had been sunk by one of its own kind.

The opportunity to do that again would come the following month, but only part of the Kido Butai would participate in the world’s first true Carrier vs Carrier Battle. Still, Hermes, long serving veteran of the China Station, was gone. Another would rise in her place and 40 years later be on her way to another unexpected conflict zone, but that is another story……

Be sure to check out William Cobb’s Facebook Page Pensacola Aerospace Museum for awesome aviation’s photos and stories.

The sinking of HMS Hermes, the First Ship Designed as an Aircraft Carrier
The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (95) sinking after Japanese carrier air attack on 9 April 1942.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy and Crown Copyright


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William Cobb

William Cobb

Mr. William Cobb is a licensed Instrument Flight Instructor in Single and Multi Engine Airplanes who is the founder and director of the Pensacola Aerospace Museum. Mr. Cobb spent from 2008 to 2015 instructing for the U.S. Navy's Initial Flight Screening program. After 8 years of full time Flight Instruction, Mr. Cobb started his own Commercial Drone Business, obtaining the first FAA Part 107 certification in his FAA region. Subsequent Drone work led to his becoming involved in Film Production work, and his establishing the Pensacola Aerospace Museum, an entity dedicated to honoring the memory of all those who ever gave their lives to flight.

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